INTERVIEW WITH AHMED ABDEL MEGUID, OUR NEW ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF RELIGION
Professor Abdel Meguid is a newly hired Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. His research focuses on Islamic philosophy and theology as well as eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century German philosophy and phenomenology. Professor Abdel Meguid will teach classes on Islamic philoso- phy, theology, and mysticism, as well as continental philosophy with a special focus on the German tradition. As far as Islamic philosophy is concerned, his research centers on the thought of the Ash‘artie school of Islamic theology, particularly al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Avicenna, and the synthesis of their philosophical systems in the thought of Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240). He sat for an interview with Middle Eastern Studies Newsletter.
Could you please tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Cairo, Egypt. In 2002 I earned my B.A., Summa Cum Laude, double majoring in Phi- losophy and Economics at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and this year I completed my Ph.D. in Philosophy at Emory University. While at AUC I developed an interest in investigating the role the insights of continental philosophy could play in reviving and developing key themes of Islamic philosophy, and how both traditions could inform and develop each other, specifically regarding the relation between the philosophy of religion and philosophical anthropology, or the theory of human nature.
During the course of my graduate studies, I continued to pursue these interests by working closely with Emory’s Religion and Middle Eastern Studies departments. As I deepened my investigation of Islamic philosophy in Western academia, I realized that its scholarship is still dominated by the historical and philo- logical approach of classical Orientalism. I therefore became more and more convinced of the pressing need to engage the Islamic philosophical tradition philosophically, in order to put its key themes and motifs in dialogue with current problems in philosophy and the human sciences in general.
Right now I am primarily interested in Islamic philosophy and German philosophy. In my work I strive to use the tools of hermeneutical and phenomenological analysis to engage key figures and themes in the Islamic philosophical tradition. My dissertation investigates and synthesizes under-explored dimensions of Immanuel Kant’s and Muhyi ad-Din ibn al-‘Arabi’s (d.1240) philosophy of religion. At Syracuse University I hope to teach a variety of classes including undergraduate and graduate level classes on Islamic theology, law, philosophy and mysticism in addition to modern and continental philosophy of religion.
What insights related to your research that you hope to share with students?
Through philosophical engagement, we can reconstruct what I would like to describe as an Islamic worldview, where Islam can present itself as humanistic perspective that can converse with and interact with key questions in modern thought. This worldview is essential for Muslims to make sense of their identity in the contemporary world and also for the promotion and enhancement of the relation between the Muslim world and the rest of the world.
In your view, how useful is the binary East-and-West in religion and philosophy?
This is an excellent question and lies at the core of my scholarly interest in the disciplines of
Religion and Philosophy. The dualistic split between the East and West has led to the two scholarly phenomena of which I am rather critical. The first is the Oriental reductionism by Western scholars studying the East and its obverse side, the Occidentalism by Eastern scholars. The second is the claim that the two traditions are absolutely separate and share no common ground. I find that we need to put both the East and the West in rigorous dialogue with each other, an exchange that is urgently needed. By rigorous dialogue I do not mean looking for seemingly common cultural or social values or practices; rather, I mean looking, through careful investigation, at the prospects of how both traditions can enrich each other on key question of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.
What are your thoughts about recent events in the Middle East?
There is no question that as an Egyptian and an Arab I am delighted with the fall of the dictatorial regimes that have been ruling most of the countries in the region since the military up- risings/revolutions that swept the region in the aftermath of World War II and the faltering of the classical colonial powers. Nonetheless, especially as far as Egypt is concerned, I am rather worried about the dogmatic debates that pervade the political and intellectual scene, which is frustratingly engrossed in secondary debates and ad hominem arguments against the other.
Take for instance the current debate between Islamists and Liberals. Neither of the two groups is really trying to question the fundamentals of the vision it claims to propound. None of the leading Islamists try to undertake a thorough exploration of the political life as an integral part of the Islamic worldview. Questions such as the Islamic view of the political subject, the relation between the private and public spheres, and the role of institutions are almost never tackled. Even though I believe that the classical Islamic sciences offer a great potential for developing a political vision and philosophy that is completely anti-theocratic and can engage in central debates in modern political philosophy and theory, in Egypt today many questions are being completely overlooked. The same holds for the proponents of liberal democracy. None of them try to tackle the problems inherent in both liberalism and/or democracy. For example, the question of normativ- ity is not tackled. Further, proponents of democracy often present it as a magical panacea to all problems without questioning its fundamental assumptions.
Last but not least, none of these contending political camps are tackling the more press- ing question of what economic system should Egypt adopt in the coming era. Should it assimilate itself to the global capitalistic machine and its exploitative policies? Or should it rather try to build a national economy that can stand on its own and engage with other main economies in the world but avoid being subservient to them?